The self-conscious ironical tone of The Blithedale Romance is one of the first things that strikes the reader, and this tone is set by the first-person narrator, Miles Coverdale, an independently wealthy poet. In spite of his expressed desire to participate in the experimental paradise of Blithedale, Coverdale’s implicit attitude is that of a dilettante, someone who loves his creature comforts but who, through boredom, is pursuing an idealistic alternative to his privileged artificial life. If Coverdale typifies those who, like Hawthorne, participated in the Brook Farm experiment of 1841, the reader can understand why the project failed.
Coverdale is essentially an observer of life. He is able to situate the socialistic experiment of Blithedale historically: It is a successor of the Puritan attempt to make one’s principles the foundation of daily living. Coverdale notes that group living requires a sacrifice of individual development, and the prime leaders—Hollingsworth and Zenobia—are individualists incapable of such a sacrifice. Perhaps because of the first-person narrative mode, none of the three main characters described by Coverdale ever comes to life on the page.
Hollingsworth is the type of the single-minded philanthropist who has channeled all of his considerable energy into founding an institute for the reformation of criminals. This apparently selfless devotion endears him to the two female protagonists: the dark and sensual Zenobia and the pale and spiritual Priscilla.
Like true romantic heroines, Zenobia and Priscilla are initially shrouded in mystery. The proud, wealthy Zenobia chafes at the restrictions society places on her sex. Priscilla, on the other hand, a seamstress before coming to Blithedale, possesses an essentially dependent character, devoting herself first to Zenobia and later to Hollingsworth. According to their father, the impoverished Old Moodie, his daughter Zenobia represents the wealth and power that her father abused and lost through some unnamed crime, while Priscilla is the child of his poverty, a reclusive person who fills her imagination with her father’s stories. Zenobia possesses many social qualities; Priscilla is rumored to be psychic.
Irony dominates the narration of The Blithedale Romance. For example, the judgmental narrator Coverdale...
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